Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. (Lk 4:16-20, CEB)
A growing question lurks in the back of my mind. I think it lurks there because I am not ready yet to accept the implications of dealing with it in a forthright way.
Several years ago I got into an exchange with a staff pastor at a United Methodist mega-church. He had written something about how God loves the upwardly mobile and those who are successful by the world’s standards. I asked him if saying such things to the comfortable and admired people of our generation did not in some way undermine the gospel.
He responded that God loves everyone.
This I happily affirmed, but I still am troubled by the exchange. When I think of God’s love of the rich, I think of the rich young man who Jesus looked upon and loved before telling him that to follow Jesus he would have to sell all he had and give it to the poor. I think of that sermon in Luke 4 that was addressed specifically to the down-and-out of Nazareth. I think of the good people of that Nazareth synagogue trying to haul Jesus to the edge of a cliff in their Sabbath best.
We United Methodists don’t have a lot of room to wriggle off the hook on this issue, although we have lots of history doing so. John Wesley preached as strongly as anyone could that Christians are endangered by riches. He found no room for the love of money among the people of God. He ministered to prisoners, even prisoners of war, and the poor throughout his life. He thundered against what we would call good middle class values in sermons and letters.
Hear ye this, all ye that dwell in the world, and love the world wherein ye dwell. Ye may be “highly esteemed of men;” but ye are “an abomination in the sight of God.” How long shall your souls cleave to the dust? How long will ye load yourselves with thick clay? When will ye awake and see that the open, speculative Heathens are nearer the kingdom of heaven than you? When will ye be persuaded to choose the better part; that which cannot be taken away from you? When will ye seek only to “lay up treasures in heaven,” renouncing, dreading, abhorring all other? If you aim at “laying up treasures on earth,” you are not barely losing your time and spending your strength for that which is not bread: for what is the fruit if you succeed? — You have murdered your own soul! You have extinguished the last spark of spiritual life therein! Now indeed, in the midst of life you are in death! You are a living man, but a dead Christian. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Your heart is sunk into the dust, your soul cleaveth to the ground. Your affections are set, not on things above, but on things of the earth; on poor husks that may poison, but cannot satisfy an everlasting spirit made for God. Your love your joy, your desire are all placed on the things which perish in the using. You have thrown away the treasure in heaven: God and Christ are lost! You have gained riches, and hell-fire!
Of course, Wesley’s frequent preaching on the subject did not have the impact he desired. He spent most of his ministry fretting over the way Methodists ignored his preaching about worldly wealth.
And so, the question comes back: Are we spending enough of our time and energy as the church of Jesus Christ proclaiming the message that Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4?
Like I say, I hesitate to ask this question because I know the answer in my life and ministry. I fear the consequences of taking that question seriously. It would disrupt quite a bit of my life and not just mine. It is more comfortable not to listen or engage the question. I don’t have to throw Jesus off the cliff to ignore him. I can just preach other verses. But the question still lurks.